The best classical music works of the 21st century

Posted by

25 Jennifer Walshe

XXX Live Nude Girls (2003)

Jennifer Walshe asked girls about how they played with their Barbie dolls, and turned the confessionals into an opera horrors in which the toys unleash dark sex play and acts mutilation. Walshe is a whiz for this kind thing: she yanks f the plastic veneer commercial culture by parodying then systematically dismembering the archetypes. KM
Read our review | watch a production from 2016 BIFEM

24 John Adams

City Noir (2009)

Adams’s vivid portrait Los Angeles, as depicted in the film noir the 1940s and 50s, is a three-movement symphony sorts, and a concerto for orchestra, too. It’s an in-your-face celebration orchestral virtuosity that references a host American idioms without ever getting too specific. It’s not his finest orchestral work by any means (those came last century), but an effective, extrovert showpiece. AC
Read our review | Listen on Spotify

The best classical music works  the 21st century


23 James MacMillan

Stabat Mater (2016)

The prolific Scottish composer has made an impact on choral music, by drawing on his Roman Catholic roots, most recently in his Fifth Symphony, Le grand Inconnu, and in his Tenebrae Responsories. His Stabat Mater for chorus and string orchestra, premiered and commissioned by Harry Christophers and the Sixteen, caught the public imagination, its message direct, immediate, radiant and impassioned. FM
Read our review | Watch the world premiere performance at the Vatican

22 Linda Catlin Smith

Piano Quintet (2014)

She holds the fabric between the fingers, she tests the fibres. She leaves space around the material to consider it from this way and that, then sinks in deep. Catlin Smith’s music is slow and quiet but it’s also lush. More than any minimalist, she takes her cues from Couperin, Debussy and the paintings Agnes Martin. The results are sparse, rugged and sensual; quiet does not have to mean st. KM
Read our review

21 Max Richter

The Blue Notebooks (2004)

Written in the run-up to the 2003 invasion Iraq, The Blue Notebooks is Max Richter’s meditation on violence and war, one that was recorded in three hours. The song cycle is linked by narration from Tilda Swinton, but the most compelling pieces don’t require words. Organum is a funereal organ solo, Shadow Journal a piece ambient house, but the centrepiece is On the Nature Daylight (since used on countless films and TV soundtracks), where ever-expanding layers strings are used to heart-tugging effect. JL
Richter writes about his composition | Listen on Spotify



20 Caroline Shaw

Partita (2013)

Caroline Shaw’s Partita, written for her own vocal octet Roomful Teeth, is an explosion energy cramming speech, song and virtually every extended vocal technique you can think into its four “classical” dance movements. It might blow apart solemn, hard-boiled notions greatness, but it has to be the most joyous work on this list. EJ
Read more here | Listen on Spotify.

19 Cassandra Miller

Duet for cello and orchestra (2015)

A slow cello pivots between two notes, a steadfast voyager on a road laced with spangly seduction (brass fanfares, ardent strings). The journey lasts half an hour; it sums up a resolute lifetime holding the course in bright and heartsore times. Miller is a master planting a seed and setting in motion an entrancing process, then following through with the most sumptuous conviction. KM
Read the review | Listen to an extract.

18 Brett Dean

Hamlet (2017)

The Australian Brett Dean, a viola player in the Berlin Philharmonic before concentrating on composition, found his operatic voice with Hamlet. An ingenious reworking Shakespeare (libretto by Matthew Jocelyn) which opens with a fragmented “To be, or not to be…”, it was premiered at Glyndebourne in 2017 with Allan Clayton in the title role and Barbara Hannigan as Ophelia. FM
Read the review | Watch a trailer

The best classical music works  the 21st century


17 Steve Reich

WTC 9/11 (2011)

It took the quintessential New York composer a full 10 years to process the horrors September 11 and compose this dissonant threnody, one that sets Reich’s sawing strings against manipulated voices. The recordings horrified air traffic controllers and eyewitnesses are spliced and looped, the tonalities their speech replicated (sometimes almost mockingly) by the Kronos Quartet, before we reach a closure sorts with a cantor’s prayer. JL
Read the review | Watch a live performance.

16 Rebecca Saunders

Skin (2016)

Rebecca Saunders’s music always makes a visceral and violent, yet sensually resonant, poetry. Composed in collaboration with the soprano Juliet Fraser, Skin takes inspiration from Samuel Beckett, turning the writer’s image dust as “the skin a room” into a 25-minute evisceration the sounds that the soloist and ensemble can make. Saunders burrows into the interior world the instruments, and inside the grain Fraser’s voice – scrapes and screams, breaths and sighs – and finds a revelatory world heightened feeling. TS
Listen to a live performance

15 David Lang

Little Match Girl Passion (2007)

Combine Hans Christian Andersen’s tale the Little Match Girl with Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and you have one the most original vocal works recent times. Extracts from Andersen’s story and from St Matthew’s gospel are interleaved with closely woven vocal writing, that is sometimes unaccompanied, sometimes punctuated by discreet percussion and ten comfortingly tonal and hauntingly affecting. AC
Read our review | Listen on Spotify

14 Pascal Dusapin

Passion (2008)

Dusapin’s opera reimagines the final colloquy Orpheus and Eurydice, on the borderline between life and death, as a meditation on the idea passion as an expression desire and suffering. The score subtly alludes to Monteverdi and French baroque, but the sound world it creates is uniquely Dusapin’s own: tense, quietly mesmerising and austerely beautiful. TA
Read the review | Listen to the work

The best classical music works  the 21st century


13 Olga Neuwirth

Lost Highway (2003)

David Lynch’s slightly baffling film – in which a jazz musician murders his wife, goes into a psychogenic fugue and becomes another person entirely – was perfectly suited for adaptation by this eccentric Austrian composer, whose genre-straddling work explores notions identity. An immersive production, staged by the English National Opera at the Young Vic, used film, a chirruping electro-acoustic score and the terrifying, androgynous voice David Moss to further confuse things. JL
Read our review | Listen to the work

12 Unsuk Chin

Cello Concerto (2009)

A series concertos, for western and eastern solo instruments, runs like a spine through Unsuk Chin’s orchestral music. But the work for Cello is perhaps the most original and entertainingly disconcerting all them, cast in four brilliant movements that never quite conform to type, while doing everything expected a concerto, in a fresh and unconventional way. AC
Read our review | Listen on Spotify

11 Gerald Barry

The Importance Being Earnest (2012)

With the role Lady Bracknell given to a bass, the row between Gwendolen and Cecily conducted through megaphones and accompanied by smashing glasses, and most the text delivered with machinegun rapidity, this operatic take on Oscar Wilde isn’t for the faint-hearted. But somehow, it brilliantly captures the play’s absurdities while adding a layer surrealism that is entirely Barry’s own. AC
Read our review | Listen on Spotify